Bars Over Serves Drunk Driver

Wrongful Death, Confidential Settlement

We represented the estate of a local woman after two taverns served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person who then drove his car through a red light, killing four people and injuring another.  The woman was thirty-six years old when she was killed. She was survived by her only child, who was severely injured in the crash, her mother, and her brothers.

The Events Leading up to the Woman’s Death

Starting about 5:25 pm, and continuing to about 8:45 pm, bartenders at two Eugene area bars served alcohol to a man who became visibly intoxicated at the first bar, before he was served even more at the second bar.  For much of this time, they were serving him “Jagerbombs,” a mix of 70 proof Jagermeister and Red Bull.

Multiple eyewitnesses confirm that the man was visibly intoxicated while being served by the first bar, before the second served him even more alcohol.  Some eyewitnesses put the time of initial visible intoxication at between 6:15 and 6:45 p.m.  Employees of the second bar said that its customer was intoxicated when he was forcibly ejected from that establishment.  No employee of that bar attempted to prevent the man from driving away, knowing that he would be driving while intoxicated. To the contrary, the bar encouraged him to get into his car, knowing that he was visibly intoxicated.

That day, the local woman taught a class at her dance studio.  She and her students were practicing for an upcoming performance. As she often did, afterwards she drove some of her students home.  She first dropped off one of her assistants, picked up her son, and then began to head towards another home to drop off another person. 

As the drunk was driving south on Bertelsen Road at about 8:30 p.m., the woman was driving west on West 11th.  The crash happened in an instant, captured as a flash of light in the rear view camera of a nearby police cruiser.  By the time the EMTs arrived, it was clear that the only survivor was the woman’s son. Those responding to the scene were traumatized by what they saw.

A toxicologist reviewed the medical records, lab test results, witness statements, and other documents, and has concluded that the taverns’ patron was extremely impaired by alcohol, both mentally and physically.  Blood drawn at the hospital show a plasma blood alcohol level of .21. Whole blood testing showed a blood alcohol level of .18. The toxicologist determined that the patron had this blood alcohol level from 7:00 p.m. until about 10:00 p.m.   Drug testing also showed that the patron was positive for marijuana and Benadryl, both sedating substances, that had additive impairing effects when consumed with alcohol. In addition to the eyewitness repeated observations that the drunk was having slurred speech, the toxicologist concluded that it is highly medically probable that the man was visibly intoxicated when both bars served alcohol to him. 

Our community lost a valuable woman, mother, and businessperson

The woman was a source of inspiration to many.  She lived her life fully, cared deeply for friends and family, and had boundless energy.  She inspired her students and helped many develop stronger self-esteem. Those who knew her, both young and old, were better people for knowing her, and lived richer lives because of her.

The lifetime of human losses in this wrongful death case were limited by statute to $500,000.  Many people wonder about the wisdom of that statute, when, for example, a college coach or a young athlete can be paid  many times that amount in just one sports season. The loss of a mother’s love and care for a young child greatly exceeds that amount.  The woman was the primary custodial parent for her son, and was engaged in all aspects of her son’s life. Her death was keenly felt by him.   

Her death also had a profound effect on the rest of her family. She was the organizer of family events, “the glue that held the family together.”  She traveled with her mother, and spoke with her frequently. When the woman’s step-father, who had helped raise her from a young age, died last year, it was she who helped the family pull through that difficult time.  

There was also substantial economic loss as a result of the woman’s death.  Those losses were evaluated by a vocational expert and an economist who we asked to review the case.  In addition to the human harms and the economic damages, a jury would have the discretion to assess punitive damages.  

Concluding Thoughts

The death of this woman was a needless and preventable tragedy.  The statutes and rules prohibiting taverns from serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated patron were written precisely to prevent what happened here.  Those laws are well-known to taverns. 

This case touched a painful nerve in our community.  Not since the Thurston school shootings had so many people been killed in our area at one time.  There was an outpouring of community support for the woman’s family after she was killed.  

We believed that a jury would have no problem returning a substantial verdict in this case.  The defense asked for a mediation, and the case was settled against the drunk driver and the two bars for a confidential amount.

As a society, after tremendous losses over decades, we have made some progress against drunk driving, but the problem persists.  People with alcohol abuse problems, once they start drinking, tend to be terrible judges of their own abilities and limitations. Society has had to find ways to decrease the incidence of drunk driving that does not depend on each individual drinker making better decisions when they are no longer sober.  While it is important to hold individuals accountable for their wrongful driving behavior, to effectively protect the community from needless harm, it is also important to hold bars accountable for their wrongful serving behaviors. 

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